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Author Seeks Publisher – The Query Letter

Graffiti in Pelotas, Brazil, February 2017

This is how I picture mornings at most publishers:

“Oh, an unsolicited query letter! Awesome, I needed something to clean up the coffee I’ve just spilled.”

“Eh, a thick manuscript… Jane, where is the new shredder we need to test?”

Even though I’ve never set foot in a publishing house, I imagine query letters are to these professionals what direct mail is to us, mere mortals—a pile of junk that lands on your doormat, where you want it or not. With a sigh, you quickly sort through it instead of dumping it directly into the recycle bin just because, eh, who knows, you may find a couple of useful coupons for local businesses.

My goal? Being one of these “useful coupons,” the letter you put aside to take a closer look.

When I worked at a language school, I was tasked to accept and filter resumes and cover letters for vacant positions. Naïve twenty-three-year-old me was honoured to have been given such a big responsibility until I realized I was basically a human spam filter for resumes that may give the CEO a heart attack.

It’s amazing how bad resumes and cover letters can be and how many you can receive. And by “bad” I don’t mean “oh, the candidate left a typo.” I mean handwritten documents (unlike in France, pragmatic Canadians don’t believe in graphology), incomplete sentences (or copy/paste gone wrong), resumes with no contact info, etc.

I was on job seekers’ side and I was eager to give everyone a chance, but after a few days, I started passing along only about 3/10 of all the applications I received—and this meant any resume that wasn’t stained with ketchup… or at least, I hope it was tomato sauce.

Basic lesson learned here: at least, give it an honest try. Half-assed jobs are easy to spot.

I haven’t written a “me, me, please, ME!” letter in a while. Even though I should prospect clients, my existing ones keep me busy and freelance work is largely a word-of-mouth business. In a way, a query letter is a bit like a cover letter, I rationalized. You have to grab a busy person’s attention and demonstrate your strengths, your skills, some of them hopefully already shining through. For instance, it’s hard to believe you are detail-oriented when you address a letter to “Mrs. John Smith” and your communication skills may be lacking if the reader has no idea what you are talking about after two paragraphs.

I’ve had some success in the past with my cover letters, admittedly because I wrote them in French and use all the flowery phrasing and elaborated tenses we learn at school in France. Compared to some local franglais, yeah, I probably had an edge.

But where is my edge here? What are my strengths?

This time, it’s not about me. I’m selling the book—the story, the project, the background.

I had to make a compelling argument because reading is a time-consuming activity. In fact, this is mostly why I didn’t pester my network for feedback. Like I joked in an email to Lexie, there are three favours you don’t ask friends you want to stay friends with: 1) help you move 2) a free last-minute babysitting service 3) a manuscript read-and-critique. Giving your opinion, honest or not, on a song, a YouTube video, some craft, a homemade cake or a portfolio is relatively painless and quick. But reading takes time. Most of my friends don’t even have the chance to read books they selected, I didn’t want to impose a 300-page novel on them. A page-turner can keep you up all night but you can also spend gruelling hours deciphering someone’s prose—at the end of Victor Hugo’s Les châtiments, I was rooting for Napoléon III’s Second Empire just to spite the French writer.

I worked on my query letter all week, between telling Mark dragon stories (easy audience) and editing corporate documents.

Every word counts. No clichés. No rambling.

I like the result.

I think I gave it an honest try.

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